Japan’s Policy Toward China & Taiwan

By Madoka Fukuda —

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan shakes hands with President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in November 2017 Source: Government of Japan, used under a creative commons license.

This year, 2018, marks the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China. Since 2017, both countries have repeatedly conveyed an interest in mending bilateral relations. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is expected to invite Chinese president Xi Jinping to visit Japan this year or next year. Yet, the Taiwan issue remains a destabilizing factor amid the momentum of improving Japan-China relations. Although the relationship between Japan and Taiwan has become closer in recent years, the cross-Strait relationship has deteriorated since the Tsai Ing-wen administration came to the office in 2016. Consequently, China has trained a more watchful eye on the developing ties between Japan and Taiwan.

Since the modern era, successive Japanese leaders have consistently recognized the strategic importance of Taiwan. The Japanese expedition to Taiwan in 1874 was the first overseas deployment of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. Then, after Qing China ceded Taiwan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, Taiwan was under Japanese rule until 1945. In the post-World War II era, Japan returned Taiwan to the Republic of China (ROC), in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration. Then, through the Chinese civil war and the outbreak of the Korean War, Japan and the ROC each signed mutual defense treaties with the United States and were involved in the Cold War as U.S. allies. In the 1970s, the Cold War structure in East Asia underwent a major transformation with Nixon’s opening to mainland China. Since 1972, successive Japanese administrations have essentially taken the same position on the issue of Taiwan, which is to maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan and hope for stability in the Taiwan Strait by respecting the Japan-China Joint Communiqué of 1972.

It has always been strategically important for Japan to stabilize the situation with Taiwan and to establish a good relationship with the island’s government. Geographically, Taiwan is located at the crossroad of the western Pacific Ocean and continental Asia, and sits on a critical sea lane of communication (SLOC) between Northeast and Southeast Asia. Postwar Japanese governments have pursued Tokyo’s interests through the alliance with the United States.

Additionally, these interests have been reinforced by the Japan-China Joint Communiqué of 1972. At that time, the Japanese negotiating team was concerned that if Japan accepted China’s claim to Taiwan, the legal basis for Japan to support U.S. military action for defense of Taiwan would be lost. The team concluded negotiations with China by clarifying Article 8 of the Potsdam Declaration. In this context, the article means first that the Japanese government does not have the right to resolve the status of Taiwan and second that Japan recognizes that Taiwan should be returned to “China” represented by the PRC. Thus Taiwan’s independence should not be supported.

The greatest national security interest for Japan in China-Taiwan relations is to avoid the outbreak of armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait. In other words, Japan should try to avoid a situation in which China would use force against Taiwan. As Yasuhiro Matsuda states, “once Japan gets involved in an emergency over the Taiwan Strait, the crisis has the potential to quickly escalate to an emergency in Japan… this is not only because Japan is geographically close to Taiwan but also because China is likely to see Japan’s actions as adversarial.” Therefore, if a cross-Strait crisis occurs, it is also important for the Japanese government to communicate with Chinese counterparts to avoid escalating the crisis.

Concerning the recent tensions in the East and South China Seas, the importance of a friendly government in Taiwan has been increasing. The national interest of Japan in the East China Sea is to maintain the status quo so that Japan can maintain its effective control over the Senkaku Islands and surrounding waters. Although the position of the Taiwanese government is different from the Japanese one, it is important that both governments choose peaceful ways to solve the problem.

Economics is the area where Japan can expect to develop the most win-win relations with China and Taiwan. China is now Japan’s largest trading partner, and Japan’s foreign direct investment is the third-largest, with the most businesses operating in China. Japan is Taiwan’s second-largest import and fourth-largest export partner, and Taiwan is the seventh-largest import and fourth-largest export partner for Japan. Although both Japan and Taiwan have become more interdependent with China — and trade and investment between Japan and Taiwan has decreased since 2000 — interdependence with China and the improvement of Japan-Taiwan economic relations are not necessarily in conflict. Since the mid-2000s, many Japanese enterprises have entered the Chinese market through collaborations with Taiwanese counterparts, who have considerable experience doing business with Chinese enterprises.

Improving people-to-people relations with China and Taiwan is now emerging as an important issue for Japan. Since the 1990s, civil societies in Japan and Taiwan have come to reflect a sense of common values and solidarity with each other. On this basis, cultural exchanges between Japan and Taiwan have been heavily promoted, especially among the younger generation. This has generated mutual affinity between Japanese and Taiwanese people. Recent opinion polls indicate that about 80 percent of Taiwanese and 66 percent of Japanese respondents feel close or relatively close to each other. In contrast, the attitudes of Japanese and Chinese have not been good since the 2000s. Opinion polls indicate that about 77 percent of Chinese and 92 percent of Japanese respondents feel negative impression of each other.

In the context of Japan-China relations, it has always been difficult to handle both the Taiwan issue and other historical issues. On the one hand, Japan should fully respect the historical background of the modern era and the political agreements between Japan and China that have developed since 1972. On the other hand, it is a fact that the significance of relations with Taiwan has become more important for Japan in the current regional security environment. Japan has already realized this fact and entered a transitional period marked by a more positive engagement strategy toward Taiwan.

Japan should strategically build positive relations with both China and Taiwan to create a favorable international environment. In matters of high politics — like security and diplomacy — it has often been difficult for Japan to balance its relations with both China and Taiwan. In low politics — including economics and civil society — there are expanding opportunities for Japan to find a good balance between its ties with China on one hand and Taiwan on the other.

Dr. Madoka Fukuda is a professor in the Department of Global Politics in the Faculty of Law at Hosei University. She can be reached at madoka@hosei.ac.jp. In 2018, Dr. Fukuda was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dr. Fukuda’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign policy.


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